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The Power of Speech

February 15, 2010 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

The tongue holds the keys to life and death.

One man spread a rumor about another. He later felt regret, and went to the rabbi to ask how to make amends. “Go to the store and buy a bag of seeds,” said the rabbi, “then go to a big open field and scatter the seeds into the wind. Do so and report back to me in a week.”

The man did as he was told, and came back the next week to find out what to do next. “Now,” said the rabbi, “go back to the field and pick up all the seeds.”

“But,” the man protested, “those seeds have scattered far and wide! I’ll never find them all. Many have even already taken root!”

“Exactly,” explained the rabbi. “Now you understand. When we speak badly about another person, the effect is far and wide. And it is damage that can never be fully undone.”

To Build or to Destroy

What is mankind's unique advantage over the animal kingdom? Man is certainly not the fastest or strongest creature. Recent studies of dolphins and other animals suggest than man may not even be the most intelligent of creatures. Yet man possesses something that no other creature in the universe has – the ability to creatively communicate. While other animals can communicate as a survival mechanism, none but mankind can express a philosophical query.

The Torah says that when God blew a soul into Adam, he became a "speaking being" (Genesis 2:7). The driving force of humanity is verbal interaction. This is why the Torah so strongly emphasizes the need to guard our unique attribute of speech.

Speech is the tool of creation, as in: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ “ (Genesis 1:3). Through speech we can build individuals – with praise and encouragement. By making others feel important, we build them up, as if to say, “Your existence is necessary.” This is life-giving and life-affirming.

One of the great American rabbis of the past generation, Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld zt”l, was known to have brought a neighbor back to Torah observance simply by caring enough to say "good morning.”

On the other hand, speech can also be used to destroy. Words like “you’re worthless” wipes out a person’s self-esteem. As King Solomon says, “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). The Talmud (Arachin 15b) explains that negative speech is even worse than a sword – since it kills many people, even at great distance.

Remember the expression “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”? This was clearly not said by a Jew!

Beyond the individual destruction, we have all seen the power of gossip – a vicious rumor – to tear apart relationships, families, and even entire communities.

From here we can understand an idea in Leviticus ch. 13, which describes the skin disease Tzarat (commonly mis-translated as “leprosy”), a physical manifestation of a spiritual deficiency. The Talmud (Arachin 16) says that Tzaratcomes specifically as a consequence of “Loshon Hara” – negative speech about another person. For example, we see that when Moses’ sister Miriam spoke Loshon Hara, she contracted Tzarat (Numbers ch. 12).

The Torah says that when someone has been diagnosed as having Tzarat, they must go outside the boundaries of the city and shout “Contaminated!” to anyone who approaches. The punishment is measure-for-measure: If you promote divisiveness amongst others, then you will also suffer the divisiveness of separation from community.

Three Killed

Just as the Torah prohibits speaking Loshon Hara, we are prohibited from even listening to it. (Which makes sense – if I can’t listen, then you can’t speak it!) By listening to negative talk we fuel the viciousness and become desensitized to its effect on others.

The Talmud (Archin 15b) says that Loshon Hara "kills" three people:

  • the one who is spoken about, because his reputation is ruined
  • the one who speaks Loshon Hara, because he transgresses and lowers himself spiritually
  • the one who listens to the Loshon Hara, because he is providing the speaker with the opportunity to transgress, and also his opinion of the one who was spoken about is ruined

If you do hear Loshon Hara, it is forbidden to believe that it's true. You can be suspicious and check it out, but may not accept it as fact.

For example, if someone says that Mike is a thief, you are not allowed to believe it (unless you have proof). But if you are truly suspicious, you are certainly entitled to not have him stay in your house. That is because you are allowed to protect yourself on a suspicion, even if you do not know the real facts.

Limits of Loshon Hara

Many people make the mistake of thinking that the Torah prohibition of negative speech is limited only to saying falsity and untruth. But this is not so. Lying falls under a separate prohibition, expressed in Exodus 20:13 and Exodus 23:7.

Loshon Hara, meanwhile, is the prohibition against saying anything negative or derogatory about another person – even when true!

Often, Loshon Hara will couch itself in a cloak of rationalizations – hinting, body language, “joking,” etc. Yet it doesn’t matter whether the words are spoken implicitly or implied. If the message can be construed negatively, then it is a violation of Loshon Hara.

Be aware of potential Loshon Hara situations and stop them before they start. For instance, reunions are particularly rife with gossip: “Oh, did you hear about so-and-so...”

The Talmud says that the human body was constructed to help a person refrain from Loshon Hara. The teeth and lips serve as “gates” to regulate what emerges from our mouth, while the tongue lies in a horizontal “inactive” position. Furthermore, while humans have two eyes, two ears and two nostrils – we have only one mouth as a reminder to minimize chatter. And, says the Talmud, for what purpose did G-d create ear lobes? So that if we find ourselves in a situation where Loshon Hara is being spoken, we can conveniently turn the lobes upwards as ear plugs!

Loshon Hara even applies when speaking about groups of people. For example, it is forbidden top say, “People from that city are rude!”

Unique to the Land of Israel is a prohibition of speaking negatively about the Holy Land. This is the mistake that the 12 Spies made, saying that “the land devours its inhabitants (Numbers 13:32). The sages of the Talmud (Ketubot 112b) were careful to stay shaded on a hot day, as to not complain about even the weather in Israel!

Here are some commonly-spoken forms of Loshon Hara to watch out for:

  1. “But it’s true!”
  2. “But I didn’t even mention his name!”
  3. “I wouldn’t care if someone said the same thing about me.”
  4. “Everyone knows about it already, anyway.”
  5. “He wouldn’t mind.”
  6. “I’d say it even to his face.”
  7. “Just kidding!”
  8. “There he goes again... “
  9. (Saying nothing...but rolling your eyes!)
  10. “People from that city are so...”
  11. “It’s all in the name of business competition.”
  12. "This may be Loshon Hara, but..."
  13. “C’mon, you can tell me...”

All these qualify as Loshon Hara.

There is one exception to this rule, however. We may speak or listen to negative information if we are absolutely sure it is for the constructive purpose of preventing future damage. For example:

  • to keep someone from becoming a business partner with a crook
  • to keep someone from marrying a person who has objectively harmful flaws (that they are concealing)

Before you go ahead and use this exemption, make sure the following conditions apply:

  • The information must be objectively true, not a matter of taste or opinion.
  • You must have first-hand information, not hearsay.
  • You must first give the perpetrator a chance to respond to the allegations.
  • You can have no ulterior motive or personal gain from what you say.
  • You must avoid mentioning names whenever possible.

Why Do People Gossip?

What would motivate one person to speak badly about another?

Low self-esteem. When a person feels down about himself, there are two ways to feel better – either 1) make the effort to work and build himself up (this is a lot of hard work!), or 2) put others down. The reasoning being, if I can lower others, then I don’t look so bad by comparison. But that’s the easy way, the “quick high,” and serves to increase strife in the world.

The media has built an empire around knocking down big targets –movie stars, athletes, politicians and business leaders. What is so appealing about this? For the masses who may see themselves languishing in mediocrity, it is a source of aggravation to see others’ success in life! So knock them down and problem solved!

This may explain as well some basis for anti-Semitism. The nation that holds itself to a higher standard of sanctity and morality is a constant reminder of our human potential. By eliminating respect for that higher standard, the obligation to strive for that standard likewise falls away. That’s why the world so eagerly points out every misstep taken by Israel.

The first step in avoiding Loshon Hara is to recognize our own faults and commit to improving on them. When I accept that I alone am responsible for my inadequacies, then I will similarly be less critical and more tolerant of others.

If you find yourself getting “down” about yourself or others, try focusing away from the faults and instead on the virtues. It will lift you out of your negativity.

Listen to a 3-minute audio lesson: "Hurtful Words" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin.

Judge Others Favorably

What happens if we inadvertently hear Loshon Hara? The Talmud says that we should not automatically accept it as being true. Rather, the rule is: “innocent until proven guilty.”

There is a famous story about the great sage the Rashash (Rabbi Shmuel Shtrashun, 19th century Vilna) who had a fund to lend money to poor people. One day while the rabbi was studying Talmud, the local tailor came in to repay his loan of 10,000 rubles. The rabbi was so engrossed in his learning, that he stuck the money in a book and forgot about it.

A week later, the rabbi was reviewing his loan ledger and noticed that the 10,000 ruble loan was never paid. So he called the tailor and asked for it. “But I paid you last week,” said the tailor.

“Okay, then where’s your receipt?” said the rabbi, who truly had no recollection of being paid back.

“You were studying and I didn’t want to disturb you,” replied the tailor.

Soon enough, word got out that the tailor and the rabbi were involved in a financial dispute. “The nerve of this man to pit his word against the rabbi!” they said. The tailor’s reputation was ruined, and he was shunned by the community.

About a year later, the rabbi was reviewing a section of Talmud and came across an envelope containing 10,000 rubles. Then he realized what had happened! He immediately called the tailor and apologized. “But your apology doesn’t help me,” he said sadly. “My reputation is ruined forever!”

“Don’t worry,” said the rabbi. “I’ll make a public announcement in the synagogue, letting everyone know that it was I who made the mistake.”

“That won’t help,” said the tailor. “They’ll think you’re just saying it because you feel sorry for me.”

The rabbi thought long and hard until he came up with a solution. “You have a daughter and I have a son,” he said. “Let’s arrange for them to be married. In that way, everyone will be assured that you are fully trustworthy, for otherwise I would never agree to this match.” And with that, the harm was repaired.

But it’s not always so easy...

Speech and the Process of Redemption

The Talmud asks: Why was the Holy Temple destroyed? Because people spoke Loshon Hara about each other. Thus, says the Chafetz Chaim (the 20th century codifier of the laws of Loshon Hara), refraining from gossip is the single most effective way to reverse the damage and bring about the redemption!

There is no better time to undertake this challenge than today. Three Aish HaTorah educators have written excellent user-friendly guides outlining the parameters of Loshon Hara:

Imagine how the world would change... if all humanity jumped on this bandwagon.

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